AsiaMay 16th 2018 | DELHItwitter iconfacebook iconlinkedin iconmail iconprint iconSON of a paddy farmer, born in a village in the colonial-era kingdom of Mysore, H.D. Deve Gowda has a good claim to be the most improbable of all India’s prime ministers. For ten months in 1996-97 he stood at the pinnacle of power in Delhi.…
SON of a paddy farmer, born in a village in the colonial-era kingdom of Mysore, H.D. Deve Gowda has a good claim to be the most improbable of all India’s prime ministers. For ten months in 1996-97 he stood at the pinnacle of power in Delhi. He had bumped his way to the head of a “united front” of third parties—which had nothing in common except that they were neither the grand old Congress party nor the emerging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of today’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Mr Gowda was hardly a national figure: his chief supporters were farmers from his Vokkaliga caste from the Mysore region, now part of the state of Karnataka. They have stood by him ever since, as he has returned home and traded allegiances freely. At the age of 85, Mr Gowda is poised once more to break a tie. After the election of May 12th left Karnataka with a hung parliament, he struck a bargain with Congress to keep the BJP out of government—on the condition that his son, H.D. Kumaraswamy, become the state’s next chief minister.
National elections are due early next year, and Congress is struggling to stay viable as a nationwide rival to the BJP. Since the previous national election, in 2014, Congress has lost state after state to the BJP: Karnataka was one of just three out of the country’s 29 where it remained in government.
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When the ballots were counted on May 15th both parties claimed victory. The BJP won 104 of the 225 seats in the state assembly, to Congress’s 78. (Congress had an edge in the popular vote, 38% to 36%, which counts for nothing but shows how much more efficient an operation the BJP runs.) Mr Gowda’s party won 37 seats. Had he and Congress faced Mr Modi’s party together, they might have swept the state. Instead there was a frantic courtship on the afternoon the last ballot was counted. Congress swiftly offered to play the junior role in a coalition to be led by Mr Kumaraswamy, who duly secured a meeting with Karnataka’s governor to lay claim to the office of chief minister. But the BJP argued that its plurality gave it the right to form the next government, and went to see the governor, Vajubhai Vala, half an hour before Mr Kumaraswamy was due to arrive.
Mr Vala is a close personal ally of Mr Modi, assigned to Karnataka as reward for political work done in their home state of Gujarat. It seems safe to assume that the BJP will get a good hearing. But in three recent elections in smaller states (Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya), governors allowed the BJP to form coalition governments with local parties, even though Congress had won more seats.
Control of Karnataka matters for practical reasons. If the BJP is able to keep Congress out of government there, Congress would lose clout with the big corporate donors it will need to finance its national election campaign next year. Mr Kumaraswamy claims that the BJP is trying to buy off some of his newly elected state legislators for 1bn rupees each ($14.7m). If the BJP succeeds in forming a government in Karnataka, it will have a near-lock on Indian politics.